The only thing keeping the wounded rider conscious was the loud, steady gallop of her muscled steed, racing through the silence of the darkened forest. Between waves of pain, the rider noted with concern the unusual silence of this night. The normal bustle of the forest had been stifled. She could hear only the pounding of hoofbeats and her own labored breathing. As the horse bolted down the forest path, the rider, maintaining just the slightest grip on the reins, was slowly drooping deeper on the saddle, feeling her body weakening with each gush of blood from her body. She tried to readjust her seat, but the pain was too much. She had to get to the Kingdom fast.
The horse’s hooves struck like lightning against the muddy path that snaked through towering trees, which shaded their path from the light of the full moon. The maze of branches above offered only an occasional peek at the full moon and the stars, allowing just enough light to penetrate to guide the weary and wounded rider. This was an ancient forest that had stood here since the world’s creation, its trees as big around as a hut from the meager village where she had grown up and triple the height of the western desert trolls. As the horse galloped on, every rise and fall sent a wave of pain through the rider’s body. The cut to her lower abdomen was as wide as it was deep, and with each passing moment her face turned paler, as pale as the obscured moon above her.
Still the rider and her horse persisted until the end of the forest loomed ahead, giving way to a wide open prairie. Shocking herself with a burst of strength, the rider pulled hard on the reins, abruptly stopping the horse only feet from where the trees ended. The horse and rider stood still, hidden in the protective cover of the forest. She was hesitant about the advantage that riding out into the open would give her pursuers. Would she be too easy a target? Squinting her blue eyes to see better, she surveyed the open land before her and contemplated all the possible scenarios.
In the dark, she couldn’t make out much detail. There were some tall shapes not far off, each with what appeared to be four long, skinny legs, topped by a fat, oblong body. She figured them for a herd of desma—long, lanky creatures who could wrap themselves around the wide, ancient trees of the Andhera Forest like shackles and use their long, thick beaks to break into the tree bark and grab the insects beneath. They could also use those beaks to dig into the ground to grab subterranean prey. Their legs alone were taller than most huts in the kingdom, which gave them the ability to jump over walls if they so wished. But, luckily for the surrounding villages, the desma were docile around humans and attacked only small creatures. As she observed them, a member of the herd let out a distinctive cry, one that sounded like a high-pitched, babbling brook. Were they aware that she was there and that trouble was following her?
Farther in the distance, she could make out some faint hills that signaled the border of the Golden Kingdom, the land she served as a warrior.
If I can make it through that herd of desma and to those hills, the boundary will do the rest, and I’ll be safe, she thought. Just one more sprint and I’ll be okay.
The rider straightened up in her seat and took a deep breath of cool night air. The oxygen, mixed with adrenaline, gave new life to her senses. She kicked the horse into a full sprint toward the distant hills, one hand on the reins and the other clutching her wound. The sudden acceleration pushed her hood back, releasing her long blonde hair into the wind. She paid no attention, keeping her head straight and her eyes trained on the hills in the distance, instinct and fear driving her to seek their cover and the boundary of the Kingdom.
She was swiftly approaching the herd of perhaps forty desma, which had yet to look up from their grazing to acknowledge her. She was reaching them faster than she’d thought she could. A smile flashed across her face as hope welled in her belly, easing the pain. Her hand loosened over her wound and she leaned forward in the saddle.
Suddenly, the blast of a horn cut through the night, like a bird’s shriek before an approaching storm. The rider’s heart sank. She glanced over her shoulder and saw shadows emerging from the forest. Another blast of the horn arose from her left. She was turning her head in its direction when the long, wispy tail of a desma abruptly knocked her off her horse. The beast continued grazing, oblivious to the rider, whose frantic effort to get back to her feet further tore open the wound in her abdomen. Doubling over in pain, she let loose an involuntary wail.
Her horse circled around the desma and came back to her side. The rider rolled over and pushed herself up on all fours. After sucking in another couple of breaths, she reached up and grabbed the saddle to pull herself to her feet. She leaned on the horse, taking another long breath.
“I don’t know if I can swing back on you,” she said to the horse, feeling defeated. The horse got down on its front knees, evoking a small smirk from the rider. “That will work.”
Once she was securely back in the saddle, the two were off again, weaving deftly through the herd of desma. But they had lost valuable time, and when the rider glanced back, she spotted her mounted pursuers quickly gaining on them. She nudged her steed faster, and he responded, his powerful hooves thundering across the field. Now they were through the desma herd and nothing stood between them and the safety of the hills. They kept up a blistering pace towards their goal, for the rider knew this was no time to let up.
The horns blew again behind her. The rider didn’t have to turn around to know what was coming. The sound of arrows whistling through the sky instantly filled the night, like the beating of a hard rain on the roof of a hut. The rider brought her arms tighter to her sides, bracing for the deluge of metal-tipped rods that would surely descend on her and her horse. But the rain of arrows never came. Instead, she felt a trembling of the earth. Then the trembling turned to what felt like an earthquake, and in horror she realized the target of the arrows wasn’t her, at least not directly.
“They’ve sent the full herd after us!” she yelled, whipping her head around to look back at the oncoming stampede.
As the desma bore down on her, more arrows filled the sky. She spun back forward and gave her horse a strong kick, urging him onward faster. But it was too late. The desma were already upon them, with the falling arrows making dodging the towering beasts even more risky. The herd was taking the brunt of the attack, trampling erratically in sheer panic. She tried to keep her horse under the herd, but their path was too unpredictable to make staying under them safe. She wondered for a moment if it might be better to clear the herd and risk the arrows in the open field. The choice was like asking, would she rather cut off her right arm or her left? Either way, the risk to her and her beloved horse was enormous.
It only takes one arrow. It only takes one to kill. It only takes one to die. And there are hundreds of them coming down. I don’t like this, the rider thought. Then she heard the reply in her mind. Then, ride hard and die riding, or ride softly and never make a hoofprint stick—there is no middle path.
She had known the ancient phrase since she was a girl. It had been etched in her mind so long, she would often say it without even thinking. The phrase would comfort her when pain struck; now she wondered if it would comfort her in death.
She was keeping her horse under the shield of the desma as best she could. Glancing behind her again, she realized the archers weren’t riding horses, as she had assumed, but rather animals she had heard about only in stories. Hun-dreen were demonic, twisted beasts; muscular, stocky, and low to the ground, something like a bulldog but bigger than a horse. Their heads had two giant horns sticking out from the sides and two more at the front, right above their red-and-black eyes. The beasts had no tail but emitted flames that whipped around behind them in tail-like fashion. They were as swift and pugnaciously brutal as a fire in a dry forest. As her pursuers closed the distance between them, the rider heard their bark, a deathly scream like those she had heard in battle.
“Dear Kingdom, run, Galisti!” the rider shouted to her horse. “With all the power the Golden King has granted you, run! We have to outrun these hell dogs.”
The hooves of her steed again quickened, rushing on like a flooded river at a speed she had never ridden before. But as the arrows rained down, the desma she had been riding under was struck. It began to sway and stumble, and then toppled over. She jerked Galisti hard to the right, trying desperately to stay on. The horse kept his footing as he switched directions, nimbly getting out of the falling beast’s way. The desma thudded to the earth thunderously, sending clods of dirt and grass flying. The unfazed rider wiped debris from her eyes with the back of her hand, leaving a mingled smear of blood and mud across her face.
As Galisti recovered rhythm, two desmas they were following closely, overcome by the onslaught of arrows, collided and stumbled. The rider realized too late that they were about to fall, crushing the horse and rider. Galisti tried to maneuver around the beasts but lost his footing, stumbled and buckled. The rider flew off, hit the ground shoulder first, and rolled across the field.
When she finally came to a stop, face down, her black cloak and other garments were torn and bloodied. The cut in her flesh had opened up again, and the pain was searing. She could feel the roughness of the grass press against the wound. She cried out in pain, tears falling to the grass on which she lay.
Taking a couple of deep breaths, she turned over onto her back to see that the two gigantic beasts had hit the ground beside her. There was no sign of Galisti, though she called out for him. Moving fluidly and instinctively, she connected her thumb to her index finger and whistled. A small, shiny grey pigeon burst out of the night sky and swooped down to rest on her outstretched arm.
“I need you to deliver a message for me.” The rider looked straight into the bird’s eyes. The pigeon blinked and continued to gaze at the woman. “I need you to tell Lydia that the Kiaxo outpost has been lost to us. It was completely overridden, enemies all over the place, outflanked at every turn. I am the only one who survived …” She trailed off for a second, remembering the horrors she had already seen that day. “The tower wasn’t completed before the attack. The last piece, the seed, has not been planted. They will probably set it to the torch soon. Tell her to act fast, or everything will be lost. Tell her that I send her my love. This will be the last she hears from me.” The bird cocked its head and blinked. The rider lifted her arm, and the bird took off straight towards the clouds.
The rider took a deep breath and watched as the bird flew out of view. She struggled again to get up, but the pain overtook her and she collapsed back to the ground. Defeated at last, she lay still as a tree on a windless day. Time passed; she didn’t know how long. But she remained still, her eyes closed.
A cackling sound surrounded her, like that of vultures coming to their meal. In a moment, she felt the hot, revolting breath of one of her pursuers on her face. She opened her eyes and found herself face to face with a weathered and dirty but human face, wearing a devilish grin. The man was bald, his scalp a hard crust. He wore no shirt, so that the scars all over his chest and arms were visible; only a pair of padded leather pants that ended at his calves. He had no boots on; his feet were huge, solid, and covered in prickly hair. Her eyes returned to his face and noted his dark, yellow teeth, long nose and small but pointed ears. Still on her back, she tried to move away from him, but the man slammed a dirty foot on her chest and looked down at her with that awful smile.
“Ride hard and die riding, or ride softly and never make a hoofprint stick—there is no middle path,” she frantically repeated out loud.
“Say what you will, it won’t make your death any less painful,” the Wildman said with a crooked smile as he raised a sword overhead. “And say hello to your King, if you see him.”